A Clockwinder's Lot

Barnack Clock TowerEver given a thought to Barnack church tower clock?  How come it’s always going?  What makes it work?  Is it electric?  Does it run on batteries?  An elaborate system of string and elastic bands?  And how, more often than not, does it keep such first-rate time?  

Well, the answer is rather a low tech one really. Believe it or not it runs on manpower.  One manpower to be exact. Otherwise known as a clock winder.  Each week they ensure that the church clock’s seven day movement and chime are  wound and fully primed with the correct time meticulously set.  This procedure, most usually, takes place on a Sunday morning following the Eucharist service.  

A clock winder will collect the hefty old tower key from the vestry and make their way through the nave to the ancient wooden door at the base of the tower.  They noisily unlock the door and switch on the tower lights piercing the pitch darkness within.  A clock winder will usually keep the key with him, as to leave it in the lock would probably have him accidentally locked in the tower for an entire week ..!  

They push the old groaning door inwards and are instantly greeted, particularly in these wintry months, by a most unwelcoming whistling ice-cold blast that tumbles down the steps from the uppermost reaches of the tower itself, sending shivers to their very core. They start the long lonesome climb upwards.  The 1000-year-old stone spiral tower encases 40 well-worn and most unforgiving stone steps, too narrow even for a handrail. These steps are most precarious, as over the centuries they have become well worn and very uneven in places.  They continue their journey aloft, climbing ever upwards, the ancient walls screaming a thousand years of history at them.  

Incredibly, these very stonewalls were constructed when the first crusaders captured Jerusalem; William of Normandy arrived with his Norman conquest; Vikings still marauded the globe.  Their faltering footsteps scuff gently and resonate against the ancient steps before seemingly fading into the very stones themselves.  Further onwards until finally they reach the first stage.  They arrive at the Millennium belfry level.  But they need to go further.  They must negotiate a course around the enormous old bells and their taut and precise riggings. 

Barnack St John the Baptist Church

barnack church clock towerOne bell, cast in the 1600s, half as old as the tower itself.  They then spy a giant of a wooden ladder this time, very well-worn and at least a couple of hundred of years old, probably more, reaching up to gut-churning height to the tower loft above.  Thankfully recently overlaid now with a substantially safer but much less attractive 21st century aluminium variety. 16 more steps this time brings them to the clock platform itself.  Not looking down, they cautiously climb from the ladder and onto the raised platform.  At this point, although not mandatory, it is usual for them to catch their breath before taking up the hefty winding handle.  Then, steadying themselves on the very narrow gantry, they locate the winding handle onto the clock cog and slowly and noisily wind the clock.  It takes some 50 turns with cables running through pulleys to draw the heavy lead weight to the very top of its travel.  This winding action must then be repeated for the chime and its respective lead weight.  Fine-tuning of the displayed time, if required, can be made by turning a very small cast iron lever against a small dial reference which, under heavy torque, literally moves the giant clock hands around the face setting the precise time.  

Then back down that ladder, through the bells and very gradually wending their way back down those precipitous stone cold steps and out into the welcoming and warm church below.  They pull shut the door with a clunk, lock it and return the key safely to the vestry. 

So, all done for another week.  The clock movement ticking away peacefully like a beating heart within the very core of the tower itself.  Bringing it alive.  A living Tower.

The clock winder can now rest assured at a job well done.  That a total of 1,092 carefully pre-wound chimes will soothingly remind the exact moment in time to villagers on every hour of every day and night throughout the week, and that the old familiar church tower clock will continue displaying perfect time.

Roy Beck - ExClock Winder 

barnack church